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Creativity is a funny thing – whether it be in movies, music or retail.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of creativity over the past week because I had the chance to watch two movies that fall into the depressingly popular category known as “remakes.” Neither was very good, and certainly weren’t close to being as good as the originals…and yet, they were developed (“created” seems like the wrong word) by people who have been creative in the past and almost certainly will be in the future. So what happened?

It so happens that the original versions of these two movies had happy personal connections for me for very different reasons…though I don't think that’s why they didn’t work. In fact, both were roundly criticized when they came out, and didn’t do a lot of business. So I’m not along in my feelings, even if the context of my criticisms is different.

The first one I saw was ‘The Heartbreak Kid,” the Ben Stiller version of the 1972 original that starred Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and Eddie Albert, and was directed by Elaine May.

Now, I vividly remember the night and the theatre where I saw “The Heartbreak Kid” in 1972…in part because I went with a girl named Martha Zahringer who actually resembled and even was a little better looking that Cybill Shepherd. (Got some great looks walking out of the theatre, let me tell you. I have no idea what happened to Martha, but of this much I am sure: the date was more memorable for me than for her.)

The original film was a great comedy of manners, with Grodin the nebbish on his honeymoon who finds himself attracted to a gorgeous blonde goddess who he meets while his wife is back in the room suffering from a horrible sunburn. Grodin can't help himself – he isn’t satisfied with his life in so many ways, and this is the moment when he decides to not settle, no matter what the consequences. It was a wonderful movie, as observant as one would expect an Elaine May movie to be. And Eddie Albert was wonderful as Shepherd’s suspicious father.

The new one, though, while it did have some laughs, was far more focused on gross-out humor and broad characterizations. Nothing subtle about it….which is about what you would expect from a movie directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who made “Shallow Hal,” “Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber.” It said a lot about the state of movies, and nothing good.

The other remake was “Sleuth,” which was a complete re-imagining of another movie, coincidentally, released in 1972. The original was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and was written by Anthony Shaffer, based on his hit Broadway and West End play; the new one was directed by Kenneth Branagh, almost completely rewritten by Harold Pinter, and starred Michael Caine (again, this time playing the Olivier role) and Jude Law.

My connection to “Sleuth” stems from the fact that while I was a high school senior, I decided that I wanted my senior research project to be about what it takes to transfer a play from London to Broadway. So I wrote one of the actors starring on Broadway (who had also done the original version in London), Anthony Quayle, and asked for an interview.

Well, not only did I get to meet Quayle (who, by the way, was a wonderful actor, never was a big star but memorable in such films as “The Guns of Navarone” and “Lawrence of Arabia”), but I got almost complete backstage access and ended up seeing the play from both sides of the curtain dozens of times. So I know the play well. (I even did the opening monologue from the play when I auditioned for acting school about a million years ago. I can still do it word-for-word today…even though I cannot remember what I wrote a week ago. Go figure.)

The original “Sleuth” was a comic thriller that found music in language and great pleasure in the somewhat perverse story of an aging mystery writer, Andrew Wyke, who confronts and even, in a way, seduces a young man, Milo Tindle, who is sleeping with his wife. There was a sense of delight about the piece, and it was very much about the various roles we play in our lives…and how we all are susceptible to the right kind of illusion and temptation.

I’m probably not qualified to criticize Harold Pinter, one of the 20th century’s great dramatists, but his version of “Sleuth” struck me as a mean-spirited deconstruction that simply doesn’t work. The direction is self-conscious and while Caine is his usual professional self, Jude Law is all artifice and no real emotion (not that I’d expect any more). The makers said they only wanted to use the bare bones of the original plot and make something really new…and while they succeeded in this, they also managed to make a movie that is sort of distasteful.

As I write these words, I realize that what the two new movies have in common is that they are completely inauthentic – they are constructions, not movies about people. The best movies – just like the best books and even the best retail experiences – put a spin on the conventional in some way, shape or form, but managed to stay rooted in some kind of reality.

These are two awful, awful movies.

I don't want to be a complete downer, though, so I am going to recommend two wonderful movies that I saw recently.

“The Bank Job” is a really good thriller about a bank heist in 1971 London, in which a group of unlikely thieves target a downtown bank vault – not knowing that they are being manipulated by a government agency looking to abscond with a set of photos in one safe deposit box that would cast a member of the royal family in a negative light. Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows are excellent in the leads, and I think you’ll like this movie a lot.

In a far more serious vein, “The Counterfeiters” is the Austrian movie that won “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars this year, and it is a sobering and provocative look at a Nazi scheme during World War II to print up so much fake US and British currency that the economies of both countries would be bankrupted. The twist – the Nazis used Jewish concentration camp prisoners to create the fake bills…and the movie concerns the moral ambiguities that plague the prisoners. (Think about the Alec Guinness character in “Bridge on the River Kwaii.”) This is a great film…and I recommend it highly.

Also, if you haven't seen it yet, find the time to catch up with the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” a seven-part epic based on the David McCullough book. This is great television – involving and illuminating about the formative years of the United States and the people who created it. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are wonderful as john and Abigail Adams, creating people and a relationship that seems utterly authentic. And there are two star turns in supporting roles – Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, and David Morse as George Washington. Great stuff.

And while you’re watching these movies…do yourself a favor and enjoy the Francis Ford Coppola 2004 Captain’s Reserve Merlot, which is smooth and just lovely. You can only get it from the vineyard and the Coppola website…but is well worth the effort.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.


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